WineAlign Welcomes Rhys Pender, MW

WineAlign is very pleased to welcome B.C.’s Rhys Pender, Master of Wine, to our list of core critics. Based in the Similkameen Valley where he owns a small vineyard and winery, Rhys is one of only four Masters of Wine in Canada and a renowned wine educator. He will be reviewing both B.C. and international wines, writing articles and judging at our national and world wine awards. Read Rhys’ full bio and check out his reviews here.

Rhys Pender, MW

Rhys Pender, MW

I’m excited to join the WineAlign team as a judge, critic and contributor. Based in the Similkameen Valley in British Columbia wine country and farming four acres of chardonnay and riesling, as well as travelling the world as an international wine judge, writer and educator I am lucky to get a unique perspective on the wine world – international exposure yet grounded in the day to day realities of growing grapes and making wine.

In my first article I wanted to discuss a topic increasingly relevant at home in our BC vineyards – figuring out which grapes grow best in which place and whether or not BC should start focusing our efforts on a few key varieties.

To be taken seriously as a wine region I think BC needs to give this idea serious consideration. As a wine industry we need to think about quality first and plant the grapes and make the wines that are in the long-term going to be the best for putting British Columbia on the map.

I always feel I am wading into treacherous waters with this topic. There are hundreds of winemakers, marketers, owners and critics all with differing views on whether, as a wine region, BC should seek to specialize in a few varieties or whether to go with the more-the-merrier mentality and plant anything and everything.

It is easy to understand the argument for diversity as long as production stays small and all the wine is sold in just a few markets within the province. After all, it is easier to sell one case each of five different wines than it is to sell five cases of one wine. But, as production increases (2012 was a record for volume produced) and continues to grow, will the BC market be able to soak up everything it makes?

If, and when, BC wineries need to make a serious effort to sell wine beyond the provincial borders, having a few varieties that are made by a large percentage of producers to a very high standard will certainly help BC wine to be taken seriously.

So why shouldn’t BC export across Canada and further afield with a little bit of everything? For the same reason that people avoid the restaurant that claims to specialize in all cuisines (French, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, etc.), people inherently don’t trust that anything can really be everything for everyone. It creates a vague impression rather than any real identity.

It is not to say that BC needs to produce just one or two varieties only, but perhaps 75 is a little excessive, and it does make the industry look to international observers more like a hobby than a serious business.

More importantly perhaps specialization encourages competition, and competition encourages improvement resulting in better wines for customers to drink and a better reputation for the region.

It may take a number of years for supply and demand to dictate that BC wine needs to spread further afield, but the wine business is not one that can react quickly and certainly not one that can build a reputation quickly. Success for a small industry is about long-term planning and carving out a reputation by constantly getting better and better.

The other option is the path of volume and inexpensive wine, something that the realities of making wine in BC will ensure never happens, the costs are just too high.

Right now, the only reputation Canada has on the international wine scene is Icewine, a product that is treated with a fair dose of contempt by most in the industry, with the obvious exception of the producers actively making and marketing the product. Perhaps the industry should give a little more respect to the fact that Icewine has given such a small national industry any international reputation at all.

What the world perception of BC and Canadian wine can be replaced with is up for grabs, but unless there is some agreement and producers work together, the wine scene will always be viewed from abroad as some kind of suspicious smorgasbord.

Synchromesh Riesling Storm Haven Vineyard 2011Meyer Family Chardonnay Tribute SeriesQuails’ Gate Stewart Family Reserve Pinot NoirAmongst the grape varieties grown in BC, which ones are best depends a lot on where they are grown. I am an advocate of dividing the mono region of the Okanagan (which accounts for 82% of BC’s acreage) into three main sub-regions – North, Central and South. Further sub-regions within these could then help differentiate the nuances of the Valley, but that is a topic for another article. With three main sub-regions, the best suited grapes could be more easily identified.

While solid wine is made from the likes of Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Merlot, they are rarely exciting enough to form the basis of any kind of quality reputation and are better suited to providing good wines in the value spectrum of the BC offering.

The most excitement in the glass, I believe, comes from the varieties Chardonnay and Riesling for white and Pinot Noir, Gamay, Cabernet Franc and Syrah for red. The unique climates of BC are starting to produce distinctive styles for all of these varieties, to the quality level making something that we could hang our hat on.

River Stone Cabernet FrancBlue Mountain Gamay NoirLaughing Stock Syrah 2011Some good examples are Syncromesh who is turning heads with their stunning Storm Haven Vineyard Riesling, Meyer Family Vineyards for their entire range of chardonnay, particularly the Tribute Series and the constantly-striving-for-pinot-noir-perfection, Quails’ Gate with their latest release of the Stewart Family Reserve Pinot Noir. The syrah style with intense peppery and meaty notes along with ripe black fruits is emerging as something very special as long as the oak isn’t overdone. Laughing Stock Syrah seems to have the formula about right. Gamay is gaining a reputation for affordable, juicy, downright drinkable wines that go beautifully with so much of the food currently on Canadian tables. Blue Mountain Gamay Noir is a consistent performer. Cabernet franc in BC can be both robust or, particularly in cooler vintages, a lighter, juicier style. The small and fairly new winery River Stone makes an excellent version of the latter.

The debate on this topic will undoubtedly continue, driven by impassioned opinions, creating a discussion that can only be good for the long-term future of the BC wine industry.

We invite our Premium Subscription members to use the links above for immediate access to Rhys Pender’s wine reviews. Paid membership to WineAlign has its privileges – this is one of them. Enjoy!

Photo credit, Rhys judging at NWAC: Jason Dziver Photography